Monthly Archives: May 2014

Paradise lost

Update: On May 30, GSU announced it would postpone the GPB takeover of WRAS to June 29.

When you get up Saturday morning, consider finding a way to listen to WRAS from 10am to noon.  Most of us listen to it via FM radio at 88.5, but there are apps and streams and such that also make it available.

This will be the final Saturday that WRAS will play a brilliant program called Adventures in Paradise, which calls itself “your weekly source of classic Exotica, Tropicalia, Calypso, Surf Rock, Lounge Singers, Rhumba, Mambo, Samba, Bossa Nova, and other Sunshine Music.”  It’s a madcap, inspiring and very entertaining way to start a weekend.

A week from Saturday, Georgia Public Broadcasting promises to replace Adventures in Paradise with reruns of Car Talk, the syndicated show featuring two auto mechanics.  10325140_480072262126543_7708899296937720419_n

Georgia State University has simply handed over most of WRAS-FM’s programming to GPB, and both entities have endured a much-deserved shitstorm over the last months. Said shitstorm is observable on GPB’s own Facebook page, or by visiting #saveWRAS on Twitter and such.

It’s deserved because WRAS is local, clever, influential, student-run and transgenerational.  It is arguably the best college radio station in America.  It’s stunning that GSU simply handed it over to GPB (minus evening and graveyard shift programming).  The secrecy of the deal, and its unveiling as students were leaving campus at the conclusion of the spring semester, makes it heavyhanded and ugly.

GSU president Mark Becker finally met with WRAS staff after-the-fact, and staff came away with an impression that some modifications would take place (two weeks later, none has been announced).

10404436_481481095318993_6932548418442056698_nMeantime, GPB is rapidly becoming the bad guy as they slowly roll out a programming lineup that will be rife with reruns of nationally syndicated shows like Car Talk and Prairie Home Companion, shows that are already quite available in Atlanta on WABE.

As I’ve written earlier, I like GPB but I love WRAS.  There are backstage people at GPB I absolutely adore.  It grieves me to see them having to keep their heads down as the shitstorm flies.  (Poor Bill Nigut is listed as part of GPB’s new lineup, and is now becoming the face of evil in this controversy. Nigut has told me he found out about the WRAS takeover at the same time everyone else did.)

GPB is an honorable entity.  It’s smart and avoids the foolishness of commercial broadcasting (pledge drives notwithstanding, Chip Rogers notwithstanding).  Along with WABE, GPB covers Georgia’s capitol more thoroughly than most of Atlanta’s TV stations.  GPB is fighting the good fight.  GSU made the mistake, but GPB will be the face of it June 2.

Whenever GPB raises its WRAS-takeover profile, it only seems to make it worse.  The latest is a GPB press release that inadvertently highlights just how screwed-over students are in this deal.  Cue the soothing radio voice as you read:

Our partnership with Georgia State University helps Georgia State students open the door to their future. Now, internships in a professional media operation will be available to provide practical on the job experience that matters to potential employers.

Each year, interns play a vital role throughout GPB’s operations working alongside professionals in areas including television production, news, new media and beyond. (…)

In addition, students will also produce a 30-minute music program that will air as part of GPB’s new programming schedule from 5 a.m. – 7 p.m. on 88.5.

In other words, in exchange for 14 hours of students-produced content seven days a week, students get internships at GPB!  And a thirty minute radio show!

All so GPB can run syndicated programming, plus a show hosted by Nigut.

Like Putin’s walk into Crimea, this takeover seems inevitable and unstoppable.  GPB may lose a few donors in the short term, but is well positioned to eventually expand its takeover of WRAS.  GSU’s secretiveness while cutting this deal shows that isn’t about Georgia State students, or a unique locally-produced entity with a 43 year history and a national profile.  It’s about power politics.

Unless GPB decides otherwise.  Its foot is irretrievably in the door at WRAS.  But a compromise that gives WRAS back to students for most of the week — and maybe all of the weekends — would go a long way toward creating some some short-term goodwill for GPB as it launches.

Meantime, I’m going to listen to Adventures in Paradise one more time Saturday.  It will be a really crappy start to my weekend.


WRAS matters

The best thing about Atlanta Georgia is WRAS, the Georgia State University radio station at 88.5 FM.  In a city with many great attributes, WRAS is the best of them.10330228_10152322747342107_1419655363576821531_n

The first night I lived in Atlanta in May 1986, I found WRAS by scanning through the lower end of the FM dial.  I vividly remember hearing a band I’d never heard before called The Jazz Butcher.  The band name stuck with me, the music was fun and the radio station remained my go-to for music in the 28 years since.  (Embedded above, Stump was another early find, with its refrain “Charlton Heston put his vest on” and it’s weird croaky rhythm.)

WRAS was, at once, wildly unpredictable yet the most consistently programmed radio station in Atlanta.  Every other commercial radio station in town has shifted focus or formats too numerous to count.  But WRAS has always been a radio station with a mission:  Play great, accessible music unheard elsewhere on radio — with an emphasis on artists unsigned by major record labels.

Georgia State president Mark Becker has made a puzzling decision to “partner” WRAS with Georgia Public Broadcasting. The benefits for Georgia State are nebulous, except to give its president and his friends (and GSU donors) another radio station with a news-talk format that they prefer to the strange yet wonderful noises that have emanated from 88.5 since 1971.  They’re trading in 14 hours of student programming per day for vague promises of exposure on the fringes of GPB’s statewide network.  It’s a great win for GPB, which has understandably craved an Atlanta radio presence.  Way to go, GPB.

I like GPB, but I love WRAS.  The decision to gut this radio station is ugly and sad.  In a world where radio is becoming increasingly homogenized and corporate and syndicated, GSU has cheerfully thrown in the towel to those impulses.  GSU’s spin that ‘WRAS isn’t going away because it will still be on the internet and on FM overnight’ just makes the taste worse.  Colleges everywhere have internet radio stations with tens of listeners.  Georgia State was, purportedly, the only all-student-run radio station in America, and it has a burly 100,000 watt FM radio signal.

WRAS was good for students.  With a volunteer staff of about 70 students, WRAS has the personnel footprint of a football team.  Students who have worked at WRAS have parlayed the experience into real-world post-graduation careers, with the added benefit of giving their listeners music they never would have heard on any other radio station.  Many of them are now on the march to forge a compromise with GSU, which excluded students and alumni from its decision.

WRAS studio at Georgia State University

WRAS studio at Georgia State University

Radio listeners are accustomed to getting their faves torn away by the cruel realities of corporate radio ownership.  One can argue that this is no different, that WRAS was bound to be seized at some point by GSU as an underutilized “asset,” and reshaped into something more ratings-friendly — even though WRAS never subscribed to any ratings services because nobody at GSU cared about the ratings.  Prior to the Becker regime, WRAS was viewed as a lab run by volunteer students — which delivered real-world feedback from listeners, and from the music industry that viewed WRAS as a tastemaker nationally and valued spots on its playlists.

You can argue about the relevance of radio, but the tug-of-war over this one shows that local radio ain’t dead yet — despite years of predictions that it would die by way of satellite or Pandora.

Now GSU is creating yet another radio station largely drained of its unique, local programming.  Way to go, GSU.

What in Atlanta is better than WRAS?  Start by disqualifying everything that hasn’t been consistently great for 43 years.  Maybe Piedmont Park is a contender.  Perhaps certain colleges and houses of worship qualify.  Certainly WREK and WCLK deserve consideration (WREK’s musical variations tend to be too jarring to make it accessible to my ears, however.  If I liked jazz, which I don’t, then I’d be a WCLK fan.)

But none is better than WRAS, a true Atlanta gem.  GSU ought to reconsider.

News that’s not news

Something awful happened to my industry on September 11, 2001.  On that date, we stopped using our news judgment.  Not all of it, of course.  But in many important ways, we allowed pranksters to start running our lives, deciding how we would use our resources and what we would cover.

July 2011, outside an Atlanta bank branch. AJC photo

July 2011, outside an Atlanta bank branch. AJC photo

In the first twenty years of what passes for my career in the news biz, we would mostly ignore bomb threats and suspicious package calls.

Sure, a bomb threat would mean evacuating hundreds of people from a courthouse or school.  It would mean the presence of lights-flashing cop cars and “bomb disposal unit” trucks, accompanied by cops with bomb gear and trained dogs and maybe a remote-controlled robot on wheels.  The visuals were compelling.  The false drama of will there or won’t there be a mushroom cloud at any moment would be somewhat compelling.

But we all but ignored it.  And it was the right thing to do.

We ignored it — Lord help us, did we really do this? — because we felt a sense of responsibility to discourage copycats.  (Certainly, part of our motivation to discourage copycats was rooted in our desire to minimize devotion of news resources to such stuff.)

And there was never a debate.   It was a given.  TV shops might send a photog to a bomb threat, just to be there in the unlikely event of an actual mushroom cloud; if they had a photog available.

June 2013, outside Georgia capitol.  AJC photo

June 2013, outside Georgia capitol. AJC photo

But a live truck?  Not likely.  A reporter?  They were, hopefully, too busy covering actual news generated by non-pranksters.  Covering events that were, 9999 times out of 10,000 likely to be hoaxes was considered a waste of resources and a breach of our responsibility to the community.  It sounds so quaint now.

Then starting in September 2001, all bomb threats instantly had the whiff of Al Qaeda behind them.  Never mind that real terrorists probably had bigger fish to fry than local courthouses and schools in Georgia. At that point, defending “the homeland” became a national fixation.  Cable news began running bottom-of-the-screen crawls to lend greater urgency to everything.  Local news struggled to contribute something relevant to the national story.

Jefferson Middle School in Jackson Co. 11Alive image

Jefferson Middle School in Jackson Co. 11Alive image

So we bowed to the pranksters who called in bogus bomb threats.  Add to that the kids who drop notes threatening to do harm inside school buildings.  During one two-day period last week, at least seven public schools in Georgia went on lockdown.  In one of them, a kid brought a gun to school but harmed nobody.  The others were hoaxes.

Now, off we go.  We send helicopters.  We dispatch crews in live trucks, interviewing evacuees or worried parents, reporting the inevitable hoax yet still passing it off as news.  More than a dozen years after 9/11, we still do it.

Our newsrooms are now staffed with people whose careers didn’t blossom until after 9/11.  They don’t even realize that there was a time when newsrooms exercised actual discretion in such matters.

These same folks are also plugged into social media, which is a tremendous resource for raw intel.  If it’s getting tweeted, then the word is getting out.  If “the word” is confirmed by news professionals, shouldn’t we report it too?   Can we let Twitter beat us on stories of bomb threats and such?

Hell yes we can.

Let social media have the scoop on bomb threats.  The word will still get out.  Y’all don’t need us for that.

Meantime, let the pros devote their resources to the stories that the social media amateurs don’t learn until they see it in the commercial news media.

We get our resources and our credibility back.  We regain some of the sense of responsibility we willingly gave up more than twelve years ago.

Pranksters will continue to try to manipulate police and government by creating hoaxes.  Sadly, they lack the discretion to ignore their pranks.

But the news media has that discretion.  We used to call it “news judgment.”  We ought to start using it again.